Berlin’s untenable foreign-policy strategic vacuum

Berlin can no longer afford to float ideas that have no practical consequences, and keep muddling through

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There is a striking contrast between the magnitude of change in Germany’s foreign policy environment and the triviality of the country’s strategic debate. This change has three dimensions that fundamentally challenge the current position and practice of German foreign policy. Firstly, the European Union, though a principal framework of German policy, is more politically fragmented than ever, and lacks a stable centre. The bloc appears ever less able to act as the lever of German strength that Frank-Walter Steinmeier, during his tenure as foreign minister, believed it could be. The permissive consensus on Europe is long gone, and “sovereigntism” is shaping the discourse on the EU in many countries, including Germany.

Secondly, great power politics is transforming the multilateral system. Global powers and influential regional states increasingly see both Europe and Germany as moveable pieces on the geopolitical chessboard, and are exploiting their weaknesses. For instance, the current US administration portrays Germany as a foe economically and a free-rider militarily. It seeks to diminish Germany’s standing, divide the country against its neighbours, and weaken the entire European project by pressuring its leading proponent.

Thirdly, Europe’s and thus Germany’s neighbourhood has lost the fragile stability it once had. In many places, hopes for a better future have been shattered. In many North African countries, deteriorating socioeconomic conditions all but ensure that local conflicts will persist for years to come. The Middle East is trapped in a deep crisis of statehood and political legitimacy; widespread political violence, often fuelled by rivalry between regional powers, cripples civic life and economic activity across the region. And, in eastern Europe, weak and unstable states struggle between an ever more assertive Russia and an overstretched EU.

Muddling through

The German strategic debate has yet to adapt to any of these challenges. Admittedly, neither Germany nor Europe has broken down under the pressure. But to take this as a guarantee for the future would be utterly naïve. Since reunification in 1990, the question of Deutschlands neue Außenpolitik (Germany’s new foreign policy) has repeatedly cropped up in the German policy debate, only for the political class to sideline it – without suffering a public backlash – each time. As has been particularly apparent since the onset of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, the discourse has largely oscillated between idealisation of Germany as a benevolent leader of Europe and demonisation of it as the continent’s hegemon. German political leaders have continued to muddle through – always fearful of overreacting or overspending – and lamented the deficiencies of the status quo while preserving it in the everlasting hope that things will work out.

In this way, Germany has become a large country with the foreign policy of a small state – which is a problem for itself and for Europe. Traditionally, small states have sought to align with the aspirations and actions of major powers, knowing full well that they would not be able to affect them anyway. Conscious of the costs of leadership, German elites have often fallen back on the small state paradigm that West Germany outgrew in the 1970s. If the European project is to survive, Berlin needs to shape its internal structures and secure Europe’s position in the international system. Germany’s demography, economy, and location require a foreign policy that operates on a grand scale.

In the coming years, a small-state approach will damage the country’s security interests and prosperity. As great power politics supersedes the rules- and values-based multilateral order, Germany cannot take even the responsive milieu of the EU for granted. The international setting that was so favourable is falling apart, and neither the current Germany nor the current EU will be able to delay or reverse the process. Berlin needs to engage in an intense debate about how to protect its interests and shape its environment. German political leaders must set clear goals and identify means to tackle the challenges that lie ahead. This requires them to formulate a strategy that distinguishes between what Germany should do nationally and what it should do through Europe, and that identifies changes to the EU that would empower German foreign policy.

Many European policy experts, including my colleague Ulrike Franke, argue that Germany should become a “normal” country to move forward, engaging in military investment commensurate with its economic size. Yet this solution misses an essential point: since the rise of the modern European state system, Germany has never been a normal country in this sense.

Ever since it united under Prussian rule, Germany’s attempts to define its foreign policy as a function of military capabilities or strength in a more general sense have never worked. Its location, size, and potential for domination have always worried other European countries in ways that only smart foreign policy can address. For instance, the close alliance with France as the foundation of European integration has proven to be smarter than Bismarck’s policy of preventing anti-German alliances. The balance between Paris and Berlin has shifted dramatically since 1990 – calling for a new approach.

Throughout the post-war period, West Germany was not a security free-rider or an importer of security, as Franke argues. Hans-Peter Schwarz, a leading historian on post-war Germany, had it wrong when he stated that the country regressed from Machtversessenheit (obsession with power) to Machtvergessenheit (neglect of power). Rather, West Germany provided essential security assets to the Western alliance. As a consequence, it had a higher concentration of combat military forces on its territory than any other western European country. Next to the Bundeswehr, Western allies maintained a massive, highly active military presence in the country. West German defence spending easily exceeded 3 percent of GDP every year in the period until 1985. And the two German states were widely viewed as the likely battleground of a third world war.

German unification and the disintegration of the Soviet Union changed this unique position, leaving little reason for Berlin to engage in such high levels of military spending and activity. Used to an imminent threat and an existential alliance commitment, German politicians lacked a compelling mission and narrative to sustain their country’s defence posture. Like all NATO states, Germany benefited from the peace dividend.

Germany has plenty of ideas about “more Europe” but few practical plans for achieving this

Today, changing Germany’s course requires more than appeals to its “responsibilities” – a term that is often used to prevent debate rather than to encourage the discourse. And it requires a much wider focus on the country’s foreign and security interests and policies, especially in relation to the kind of EU that Germany seeks to create, as well as the country’s role within the bloc. In this context, the military will not be the lever to shift Germany’s foreign policy – however much actors and experts in Washington, London, or Paris may want it to be. Actors in Berlin are quite conscious of Germany’s power, although they lack any concept of how to use it.

In light of the dramatic changes in its foreign policy environment, Berlin can no longer afford to float foreign policy ideas that have no practical consequences – as is the current practice. For instance, the agreement Germany’s ruling coalition signed in early 2018 laid out several measures to strengthen governance of the eurozone and “respond” to the plans for reforming the currency union French President Emmanuel Macron has put forward. Although Berlin and Paris both want Europe to become stronger and more integrated, nothing much has happened since then.

Rhetoric versus action

In summer this year, Chancellor Angela Merkel laid out an ambitious plan for a common European immigration and asylum policy, as well as a European asylum agency, border force, and coastguard. This long-term vision also appears to have few practical consequences for policy – in a style reminiscent of the famous commitment to a European army (or “army of the Europeans” as the coalition agreement put it). Similarly, Germany has often talked up the Permanent Structured Cooperation initiative, while doing little to actually build a “defence union” – as Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen calls it – in the apparent hope that one will emerge out of nothing.

The gap between rhetoric and action is evident almost everywhere. In a call to balance against US unilateralism, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announced that Germany would build an alliance of like-minded multilateralists. Yet this would essentially require massively strengthening the EU as a foreign policy actor and achieving a close strategic consensus between Germany and France – neither of which Berlin seems to have pushed for. Merkel has spoken about using Germany’s non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council as a “European seat”. But, so far, the German government has not committed to basing its coming term on the body on positions agreed with its EU partners. Equally, her proposal for a European Security Council has had no practical consequences.

In Berlin, there are plenty of ideas about “more Europe” but few practical plans for achieving this. Underlying doubt about the EU’s unity only intensifies the strategic inertia – if put to the test, the bloc may fall apart. A reluctance in Germany to commit significant political and financial resources to long-term goals only exacerbates the problem.

Germany’s political class has no workable ideas for applying German strength to European and international affairs; it fails to energetically build a strategic link with France and it neglects to forge a coalition of capable players inside the EU. Its big concepts for Europe are so disconnected from the EU’s shape and capabilities as to be meaningless. Furthermore, the political class is clueless about how much power it wants for Germany. Should it seek to become a minor player in the major league of geopolitical actors, or should it accumulate power to drive the emergence of the EU as a global player? Keeping one’s options open and avoiding major commitments seems to be the rule of the day in Berlin – and it is a recipe for stasis.

For all parties in the German government, the current coalition was Plan B. Berlin’s current European and foreign policy preferences appear to also follow such a plan – which usually means just muddling through. If its grand strategy centres on pragmatic engineering to control risks and avoid costs, the government risks failing on both counts.

A shorter version of this article was first published on Handelsblatt Global on 3 October 2018.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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